Former deputy jailed over alleged Gülen links hospitalized due to coronavirus

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İlhan İşbilen, a former lawmaker from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 at Ankara’s Sincan Prison, the TR724 news website reported on Friday.

İşbilen, 74, was taken to Ankara Dışkapı Yıldırım Beyazıt Teaching and Research Hospital after his health deteriorated and is now reportedly suffering from an embolism.

Once a well-known businessman, İşbilen was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-September but was just put in isolation without being taken to a hospital.

Akın İpek, a businessman living in exile, criticized Turkish authorities on Twitter, accusing them of “attempted murder.”

“İlhan İşbilen, who is 74 years old and has been in isolation in Sincan [Prison] for years, has been hospitalized due to COVID-19. Friends! This is nothing short of attempted murder,” İpek tweeted late on Thursday, referring to the authorities’ negligence in the face of the pandemic.

İşbilen reportedly applied for release on probation numerous times due to the high risk of the spread of the coronavirus in the crowded prison. However, as an opponent of the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his petitions were rejected by the authorities. 

Parliament passed a law in April that allowed for the release of tens of thousands of prisoners to ease overcrowding in jails and protect detainees from the coronavirus. However, the bill excluded inmates jailed on terrorism charges, including İşbilen and many others swept up in a crackdown following a coup attempt in 2016.

Jailed since the end of 2015, the former MP was sentenced in June 2018 to aggravated life without the possibility of parole. He was convicted of involvement in the 2016 failed coup, despite the fact that he was jailed long before it took place.

İşbilen’s lawyers had appealed to the Constitutional Court for their clients’ release in March when the government introduced measures against the pandemic, over his chronic diseases and old age that put him in a risk segment.

However, the top court ruled against the demand of İşbilen’s lawyers, saying that the situation of the former deputy did not constitute an imminent risk for him to be released.

İşbilen was accused of links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Erdoğan regime accuses Gülen of orchestrating the abortive putsch and labels the movement a terrorist organization. Living in self-imposed exile in the US, Gülen denies any involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

The former lawmaker resigned from Erdoğan’s ruling AKP in February 2014 in protest of corruption investigations into the Erdoğan government at the end of 2013. While announcing his resignation at a press conference, İşbilen accused the government of surveilling him and his family, in reference to a bugging device planted by the authorities in his house. 

His allegations were later confirmed in a report by Nordic Monitor, a Stockholm-based research and monitoring network focusing on extremism, terrorism, crime, foreign policy, security and military matters. The organization last year revealed official documents, including photos, videos and transcripts of phone conversations showing that İşbilen and his family were regularly monitored by the Turkish police. 

Similar to İşbilen, another prisoner was declared brain dead on Tuesday after having collapsed in his prison cell on September 15, the Bold Medya news website reported. Cengiz Karakurt, a 41-year-old former teacher, was also behind bars on accusations of membership in the Gülen movement. 

The teacher’s wife, Hatice Karakurt, was quoted by Bold Medya as saying that he was taken to the hospital several times but was sent back to his cell with antibiotics for treatment of a cold, despite the fact that he had reasons for his urgent release from prison, including having undergone open-heart surgery for aortic valve regurgitation. His release was only agreed by Turkish authorities a day after he was declared brain dead. 

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a member of parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee, criticized the AKP government over its inaction in the incident.

“There is once again negligence and violations [by the authorities]. The lives of prisoners should not be this worthless!” the lawmaker tweeted. 

Gergerlioğlu had also slammed Turkish officials on Thursday for another death in a Turkish prison. Ali Boçkan, an 80-year-old Kurdish inmate, died on Wednesday without being allowed to see his family for the last time, according to a report by the Gazete Duvar news website. Boçkan was imprisoned for holding a Muslim memorial service in his mother tongue of Kurdish, the report said. 

“Ali Boçkan’s death took place under a government that claims to be religious for holding a memorial service in Kurdish,” the report quoted Gergerlioğlu as saying.

Tens of inmates have died, allegedly due to the negligence of prison authorities across the country during the pandemic, according to reports by Turkish news outlets critical of the Erdoğan administration.

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